The care-less economy: Rethinking the economic role of unpaid care work
Today we are celebrating one hundred years of International Women's Day. In that time we have done extraordinarily well in securing cultural and political recognition of women's equal rights, in many parts of Africa, Asia and the Americas, as well as here in Europe.
In my own lifetime, one of the most important changes has been the shift in attitude concerning women's right to paid employment as well as women's rights to take out loans in their own name and run their own businesses. Yet there are still more poor women than men in the world today. One reason is that they are still struggling in many parts of the world to secure equal rights to assets such as land and to earn equal pay for equal work.
But there is another very important cause of women's poverty that often gets overlooked by those shaping development policy. When I first started working on policies for women's rights - twenty five years ago, as a development agency bureaucrat - a burning issue was the impact on women of the economic policy reforms (structural adjustment programmes) that donors had been encouraging partner countries to adopt. Writing at that time, Diane Elson explained that because the economy has conventionally been understood in relation to making money, much of the work that takes place outside the market economy is ignored. This includes not only unpaid work in family farms and businesses but also the feeding, caring for and ensuring the wellbeing of families and neighbours.
Today this is often described as ‘the care economy'. It forms the bedrock of human wellbeing and ensures adequate levels of productivity of the labour force. In most countries (including in the OECD) the gendered nature of our society means that women do most of the care. And those in poverty (women are the majority of the world's poor) have no choice but to bring in money as well as look after their families. Thus they have to constantly juggle the demands on their time, narrowing their options and pushing them towards work which is poorly paid and informal.
Costs of ignoring the care economy
Unpaid care work supports the market sector by lowering the cost that employers must sustain to maintain employees and their families. It also supports the public sector by offering health services, sanitation, water and child care when public provision of such services is lacking or insufficient. In times of fiscal cutbacks, the invisibility of care means that the reforms to the ‘care-less' economy leave women having to assume greater responsibilities in ensuring their families' wellbeing, if not survival.
Unpaid care work contributes to economic growth through producing a labour force that is fit, productive and capable of learning and creativity, but unless women are supported in this work their productive potential in the market is constrained and their own and their family wellbeing suffers. In the skewed existing system, where the market sphere receives greater weight and visibility than the non-market sphere, the direction of resources and energy tends to flow from the reproduction of persons to the production of commodities. This has a negative effect on prospects for sustainable growth. The wear and tear on people doing the caring goes un-noticed, the quality of that care diminishes and people become less productive as a consequence.
All this, we knew twenty years ago. Today, the good news is that development policy agendas are now giving greater emphasis to women's economic empowerment. The bad news is that the care economy still remains largely invisible in these agendas. Yet, focusing exclusively on increasing women's labour market participation and entrepreneurship will not lead to a balanced distribution of productive and reproductive work between women and men. Many women will be unable to optimise the support given them by these new policy agendas to participate in and benefit from market-led growth.
Towards economic gender justice
The care economy has become a central topic for a group of IDS researchers concerned with economic gender justice. We have coined the phrase ‘the care-less economy'.
One of the issues we have discussed is that when development policymakers do recognise the importance of care they describe it as a ‘burden', forgetting that the relationships part of care - looking after family members and neighbours - is valued by women and vital for everyone's wellbeing. Today more men are discovering the satisfaction gained from care work. But because of societal gender stereotypes most men still lack this opportunity. However, in developing countries there are other aspects of care work that are definitely a burden to be removed, including the inordinate time and drudgery associated with looking for fuel or queuing for water. Development agencies should be doing something about that. They should also be supporting gender-responsive budgeting that recognises the importance of unpaid work, including social cash transfers that address the inequitable gender relations of care, and expansion of existing services, such as pre-school, health and education to cover care needs.
International Women's Day is a good time to celebrate the positive changes in women's lives. But a big struggle remains to secure a people-centred economy. Despite a large body of research evidence that has demonstrated the harmful effects of the care-less economy, it is time to ask ourselves why mainstream policy remains fundamentally careless.
Rosalind Eyben is a Research Fellow with the Participation, Power and Social Change Team at IDS.
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